WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
Climate justice advocates want to see world leaders tackle the military’s environmental footprint at COP26 this year. The Frontline takes a look at how damaging war can be—and why it deserves more scrutiny across global climate efforts.
The Paris Agreement is a monumental and historic international treaty. It covers a lot of ground, including emissions reduction targets and emergency preparedness. Despite its cohesiveness, the Paris Agreement doesn’t cover everything. For one, it completely ignores one of the world’s greatest sources of greenhouse gases: war. To be fair, the agreement also doesn’t explicitly mention other dirty sectors, such as transportation or agriculture.
However, some climate justice advocates want world leaders to pay closer attention to their militaries and the profound impacts they’re having across the globe. There’s the oil war planes need to fly—but there’s also the toxic legacy that remains long after a war ends. Advocates are gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26 to call on elected officials to take action to not only decarbonize their countries, but to also demilitarize.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re dreamers (and know we’re not the only ones). I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The Paris Agreement doesn’t exactly exempt the military from cutting its carbon emissions, yet the international treaty instead leaves that up to individual nations’ discretion. Some advocates argue that’s not enough given the urgency of the climate crisis and the role the military—particularly the U.S. military—plays.
Ramon Mejía was fresh out of high school when he enlisted as a U.S. Marine back in 2001. He was young, married, and a new father—he needed steady income to support his family. When 9/11 happened, Mejía was still at bootcamp. By the time the U.S. moved to invade Iraq in March 2003, Mejía was lined up at the Kuwait-Iraq border. During his three years in the military, Mejía would travel across Iraq resupplying U.S. convoys with food, water, ammunition, repair parts, engines, and whatever else his fellow soldiers needed. He saw a lot of local suffering during those drives—enough to push him to speak out against the military upon his departure in 2004.
“There’s nothing sustainable about warfare,” said Mejía, who is now an anti-militarism organizer with the Global Grassroots Justice Alliance and member of About Face: Veterans Against the War. “The violence and sheer destruction that the military does to people around the world, that has to be addressed as well… As I was driving from city to city, from town to town, I saw people who were completely uprooted. People were fleeing the violence. Their homes were destroyed. When you see people in dire pain, you have to be human to empathize with them.”
Mejía isn’t alone in his anti-military stance. In fact, demilitarization has become a rallying cry for many climate justice advocates who see the billions of dollars invested in defense forces as a direct conflict to efforts to address the climate emergency. After all, climate justice isn’t only about improving air and water quality; it’s about safety and prosperity. The violence war creates disrupts and tears lives apart—as does the violence fueled by extreme weather, which is made worse by all the oil consumed by military aircraft, tanks, and ships.
Advocates argue that the military and its actions deserve scrutiny under the Paris Agreement, which world leaders are discussing in Glasgow for COP26 until Nov. 12. Thanks to U.S. pressure, the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate treaty that came years before the Paris Agreement, exempts militaries from emissions reduction targets. The Paris Agreement doesn’t go that far, but it doesn’t address carbon pollution from the sector, either. Since 2001, the same year Mejía enlisted, the U.S. military has emitted an estimated 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases. Its annual emissions are estimated to be more than what some entire nations release—like Portugal, Denmark, or Sweden.
“It remains unclear how military emissions will be incorporated into each nation’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the cornerstone of the Paris Agreement,” said Mark Nevitt, an associate professor of environmental law at Syracuse University who is also a U.S. military veteran. “It is an important issue that deserves more attention… The atmosphere couldn’t care less where emissions derive from.”
And that’s the concern. The Paris Agreement offers a space for all parties to come to the table and address how to reduce emissions together. Just this week, presidents and prime ministers from more than 100 countries have pledged to cut their methane emissions by 30% compared to 2020 levels by 2030. Leaders have also promised to halt deforestation and protect the world’s natural carbon sinks. That’s all great, but organizers want to see attention on war, too. If we’re talking about preserving nature, conflict factors in there, too.
“We can’t rely on climate solutions from the same states and corporate actors that continue to literally profit off our destruction, pain, and suffering.”
In Palestine, for instance, the ongoing land conflict with Israel has affected access to clean water and created industrial pollution. Sharif Zakout, an organizer with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a community organization based in the Bay Area advocating for Arab empowerment, is Palestinian and knows too well the explosive nature of war. He sees the direct connections between land invasions, resource extraction, and the climate emergency. Without addressing the root causes of the climate crisis—the exploitation of people and the land—Zakout can’t imagine any real change coming out of conferences such as COP. War is only one symptom of the capitalist, abusive economy that puts profit and power over people and peace.
“We can’t have any real robust change in the trajectory of where our world is headed unless we address the root problems, and militarism is a big part of that,” Zakout said. “Any type of climate solution has to include us—and when I say ‘us,’ I mean the most-impacted, the most vulnerable, the people. We can’t rely on climate solutions from the same states and corporate actors that continue to literally profit off our destruction, pain, and suffering.”
This reality doesn’t only exist abroad in war zones. It exists in quiet U.S. neighborhoods where families might not even realize military pollution is hiding nearby. In New Mexico, organizers have been rallying around a jet fuel spill of an estimated 24 million gallons that may date back decades. Alejandría Lyons, an environmental justice organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project, which fights for community ownership and health, worries how that pollution may affect local farmers. Her own family has a rich history of agriculture and land management, so she knows how precious water can be.
These advocates aren’t naive, however. They’d love to see the abolition of the military at large, but they know that’s unlikely. Instead, they’re calling for a downsizing of the U.S. military and reallocation of dollars that could, instead, go toward climate efforts. Nevitt of Syracuse University sees this as “shortsighted,” he said, because the climate crisis may create a greater demand for military rescue operations related to extreme weather events. Still, it’s complicated, Nevitt is sure to note.
For climate justice advocates headed to Glasgow, they see a clock that’s ticking. They see a militarized state that is expanding—a beast that grows and tramples on people’s rights. Mejía points to water protectors who are met with police in riot gear, tanks, and water cannons as a sign of everything that’s wrong with how the U.S. prioritizes the climate crisis versus its military power. While Indigenous leaders fight to end fossil fuel expansion, the federal government works to silence them.
Indeed, the U.S. military and its resources have become yet another tool in fossil fuel companies’ playbook to prolong the climate crisis in the name of their bottom line. Change may not come at COP26 or through the Paris Agreement, but these activists won’t stop trying.